What if the Information Age had started earlier?

Inspired by this thread: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=352830

What if computer/information technology had progressed faster, so that personal computers with Internet connections had been widely available in, say, 1985? How would that have effected society, politics, the economy, the course of history?

What if they had been available in 1975?


It would be straining the bounds of the possible to take it back any further than that, I think.

We’re talking about time travel and alternate dimensions; “the bounds of the possible” are pretty irrelevant. Every technical advance in recent memory is built on the back of whatever else existed, and on the capability of the people who developed it. Steve Jobs wasn’t in a position to develop Macs in 1975, nor Bill Gates in a position to buy and exploit Windows.

E-commerce couldn’t develop independently of the credit card, so forget the 1965 date (You’d need two radical developments, and the plausibility of your question hinges on only one happening at a time).

Still, let’s say Heathkit had come out with some kind of PC in the sixties, and the kids in the local A-V club developed message boards before DARPA did.

The Pentagon Papers would have been leaked online. A strong Democrat (Can’t imagine who) might’ve been elected in 1972. The Washington Post, losing out to online journalists, would never have developed into a national newspaper.

Online financial transactions would’ve warped Wall Street pretty early on. Online sales of airline tickets would’ve wiped out the travel agency industry, and the major airlines would have been decimated by cheap carriers a lot earlier.

Your home PC screen would have vacuum tubes it it, and the World Wide Web would be in black and white. Free online porn would’ve bankrupted Playboy, while Penthouse and Hustler would’ve been strangled in their cribs.

The music industry would look a lot different, with musicians able to distribute their own product without a bloating record industry. Bands like the Carpenters, the Bee Gees and the deFranco Family, freed from a need to feed the corprotate beast, would either make real music or go into some other line of work.

Eventually, the Benevolent Dictatorship would focus on fighting aliens and CHUDs, but now I’m getting ahead of myself.

I saw an interesting newspaper piece years ago that speculated on what might have happened if various ancient cultures had exploited various technical achievements. As I remember, it said that some ancient Middle Eastern cultures developed rudimentary batteries, for example; they never did much with them, but if they had kept working on it, they could have harnessed electricity millenia ago. The Romans devised some machines way before the Industrial Revolution, but they never really used them because it was easier to make slaves do the work instead. If they had developed the machines and achieved the same results of the Industrian Revolution, we could have had computers before the Middle Ages!

Not really. Something I’ve mentioned before on these boards is the creation of television. Short version: both Philo Farnsworth and David Sarnoff/Vladimir Zworykin, working separately but with some corporate chicanery (if not outright theft) going on, had developed essentially a working model of television by the mid-1930s. Had Farnsworth and Zworykin been able to work together (or for that matter had Philco allowed Farnsworth family leave to bury his infant son in Utah [his anger over this led to decreased productivity and a disollution of their partnership]) television would have been commercially available for the home market well before Pearl Harbor was bombed, but instead litigation delayed it until after the beginning of the war which delayed it until the late 1940s as a major new home media phenomena. If millions of Americans had owned television sets in 1942, World War 2 might have been a very different critter, they would have known FDR required a wheelchair which may have flavored their opinions, etc…

I don’t have much to contribute to the debate, but if you want a great alternate history book about IT taking off during the Victorian era The Difference Engine by Will Gibson and Bruce Sterling is definitely worth looking at.

In Howard Waldrop’s short story “Hoover’s Men,” Al Smith beats Herbert Hoover for president in 1928 and appoints Hoover head of the new Federal Radio Agency, which, by imposing standardization, accelerates the development of TV. Color TV is in place by the time of Hitler’s rise to power.

Personal computers linked by the Internet just wouldn’t have been practical until the “processer on a chip” fourth generation of computers were available. The best mainframe computers of the 1960s would have had trouble playing Pong, much less handling megabytes of data. You could have advanced the Internet by about twenty years, but the hardware just wasn’t available earlier.

Still, I can see that in another world computing could have been around for much longer. The Babbage engine is a good takeoff point for an alternate history. In real life Babbage spent years trying to create parts machined closely enough to build his difference engine. Let’s suppose that instead, he’d simply publicly offered a large reward to anyone who could build parts to the necessary tolerances, and some unsung mechanic solved the problem for him. Say a full-scale Analytical Engine becomes available by the 1840s. The timeline I see goes like this:

1840 Analytical Engine built. Dramatically improves standardized tables of logarithms, trig functions, and naval emphemeris tables.

1875 First electro-mechanical computer built using telegraph technology.

1880 First demonstration of networking using two computers linked by telegraph.

1890 First mathematical analysis of computability devised. Speculations about whether a machine could be intelligent.

1895 H. G. Wells writes a science-fiction story about an intelligent computer; Sir Conan Doyle writes a Sherlock Holmes story featuring a gambler who uses a computer connected to a telegraph line to beat the odds at a casino.

1915 Computers widely used during the Great War to calculate artillery tables. German U-boats equipped with cypher machines. British mathematical group uses computers to break codes.

1923 First all-electronic vacuum tube computer built.

1927 First permanently networked computers using dedicated telegraph lines.

1928 Computerized stock quotes used with ticker-tape machines.

1930 First computer-controlled direct dial telephone system in New York City.

1931 First higher-level programming language devised, using electric keyboard and teletype feedback.

1932 Western Union offers first national credit-card system. Initially limited to businesses catering to the wealthy.

1932 Election of Roosevelt as President predicted by computer.

1933 Magnetic media storage of computer programs and data

1934 Commercial computers linked by telephone modems.

1935 Cathode-ray tube first used as computer monitor.

1936 New Deal project establishes nation-wide long distance telephone service.

1937 Popular Mechanics publishes plans for build-it yourself vacuum tube home computer.

1938 Woolworth’s becomes first national department store chain to offer credit-card purchasing.

1939 World’s Fair features computer-controlled Home of the Future.

1939 Computerized population database established by Nazi Germany to further eugenics goals.

1940 Computers used to create military defense net coordinating British radar/ air defense system.

1941-1944 Computers used extensively by Manhatten Project for physics calculations. Prototype of packet-based data system used to pass encrypted data between Oak Ridge, Hanford and Los Alamos. Reactor and bomb designs advanced by ten months. Trinity test carried out September 1944.

1946 Hobbyists establish Bulletin Board Systems for home computers linked by modems.

1949 Defense Department orders construction of computerized peer-to-peer nuclear war command network.

1950 Western Union creates national commercial data packet service allowing any two subscribing computers to send messages to each other.

1951 Revelations that Soviet spies used “Trojan Horse” programs to steal data from Manhatten Project. Computer and network security concerns raised.

1952 First transistorized computers marketed.

1953 Device for outputting computer text to TV screen available by order from electronics shops.

1954 First complete home computer marketed by General Electric as a way of automating home appliances. Fails to catch on with consumers but adopted by hobbyists for BBS-ing and for amatuer written text-based games.

1957 Following launch of Sputnik, calls for major revision of America’s schools include proposal that all high school students learn computer programming.

1958 First integrated-circuit computers built.

1960 First simple video games- “Pong”, etc.

The tale of how Steven Jobs visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) and nabbed the ideas that made the Apple Macintosh so “insanely great” is, as Michael Hiltzik observes, “one of the foundation legends of personal computing.” Xerox PARC was the birthplace of the first graphical user interface – including the very concept of using a mouse to click on an icon and the technique of multiple overlapping windows. Xerox PARC also created the Alto, a personal computer that the rest of the computing industry didn’t catch up to for decades.

The Xerox Alto, introduced in 1973, but never commercially produced, was perhaps the most innovative design in computer history: it had a mouse, a GUI, an object-oriented OS and development tools, and fast networking with the first Ethernet cards. These are features that wouldn’t be common until 10 years later, and even 20 years later some of them were still cutting edge.

So a good question would be what would have happened if Xerox had not abandoned this computer – they felt there’d be no market for a personal computer in 1972…

I’d also like to see a couple of alternative histories in which Commodore wasn’t managed by blithering idiots, or in which CP/M and not MSDOS is chosen as the OS for the IBM PC:

• What if, instead of folding in the early 90s, Commodore had done a better job of marketing the Amiga and it had survived along with the PC and Mac platform? The Amiga had pre-emptive multitasking and a good-for-its-time architecture of specialized chips, mostly used for gaming, but suppose they’d come out with something akin to Photoshop, or Adobe had written Photoshop for the Amiga first?

• IBM was geared towards CP/M as first choice of an OS for the PC. Only a really bad fucked-up interview with the CP/M folks led them to be a more sympathetic audience for Micro-Soft and its MS-DOS. If we assume Gates was a marketing genius and that the CP/M folks — based on how they handled the actual interview with IBM as it transpired in real life — didn’t have much in the way of marketing visionaries, how would the history of personal computing 1979-1989 have played out if IBM had gone CP/M? Is Apple the beneficiary? Adobe? Microsoft? Commodore? Xerox? My guess is that things would have played out much the same for awhile, but that the developers of CP/M would not have come out with anything akin to Windows. Would OS/2 have gone up against the Macintosh and the Amiga? Mac System 7 was in large part a response to Windows 3.x…if the AmigaOS and OS/2 had been the primary competitors, what would Apple have done? My guess: A/UX would have been the mainstream Mac operating system, and System 7 as we knew it never would have existed.

I had access to instant messaging, email, bulletin boards, multiuser games with players spread around the country, and GUIs in 1974. This was on PLATO, based on a Cyber machine at the University of Illinois, but used by people with PLATO terminals all around the country and around the world. All that was missing was spam and (much) porn. (There was some interesting lessons if you knew where to look.)

Basically, though, accelerating the information age would mean accelerating all components of it. Let’s take downloading music. You’d need

  • Fast internet connections, which means fast cable modems or dsl cheap enough for consumers.

  • Fast and cheap PCs. The internet for home use only took off after a decent PC got to be under $1,000. Before this, the trade press was bemoaning lack of innovation, the saturation of the business market, and thought that the industry was stagnating.

  • Cheap storage to have a place to put the music. The first 286 machine I owned had a whopping 20 Meg of disk. You can’t put much music there!

  • Better design tools in order to build the processors, which requires faster computers to run on them. When I worked in a microprocessor design group I was able to request, and not get much pushback on, a whole gigabyte of disk to store my output.

  • Small, cheap disks. Would music downloads take off without IPods?

All this stuff really depends on each other.

People want might want to take a look at this article. I don’t buy much of it - Atari did have a computer that came out before the PC that never amounted to much, and many of the items seem to need a working AI 20 years ago when we don’t have one yet.

I disagree. In fact, I think that the earlier introdution of networking would have supplanted the need for credit cards in the first place, or would at least have drastically changed how they were developed.

Consider that a credit card is simply a way of making a secure transaction in the absense of a ubiquitous network. The old credit card carbons were collected and mailed in. Both merchants and customers were happy because they got a more secure and more reliable method of payment than could be achieved with cash (which is easily stolen) or checks (which are hard to verify).

If, however, merchants could be easily connected to the bank network, we would first have had electronic checks of sorts (ie, still written on paper, but entered into a computer for the actual transaction), and then debit cards, both of which are a natural extension of checks. I’m sure that usurious unsecured consumer credit would arise, but I imagine it would be tied to bank accounts, rather than to the card actually used for purchase authentication.

Along the same lines, if we take Lumpy’s timeline, the telephone and television might be delayed, simply because technological advances would be geared toward digital telecommunications. Telegraph lines would be used for text messages, and the evolution of the telecommunications network would be very different.